'The Looming Tower': Why It Was Time to Bring the 9/11 Book to TV

After years of offers to adapt his book, author and series executive producer Lawrence Wright says, "I realized [young people] didn't have a narrative about how we became the country we are now because of what happened on 9/11."
Courtesy of Hulu (Daniels) and Vintage (Cover)
Jeff Daniels in 'The Looming Tower'; Inset: Lawrence Wright's book

Lawrence Wright has been approached many times about adapting his 2006 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel for the screen. Now, Hulu will be home to The Looming Tower when the limited series of the same name plays out over the course of 10 episodes.

"Writing that book was probably the most important thing I’ll ever do as a journalist; it’s very precious to me," the author and executive producer on the 9/11 drama tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Over the years I’ve gotten a number of overtures from different entities about making The Looming Tower into a movie or a series, but it was from people I wasn’t entirely confident in."

So when he found out that Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who's portrayed by Tahar Rahim in the series, was also fielding offers, the pair decided to control their own narrative. They met with filmmaker Alex Gibney, who had already adapted Wright's one-man show, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, and Going Clear for HBO. "He’s a documentarian, and he understands the importance of truth," says Wright of the collaboration with Gibney, an executive producer on the series and the director of the pilot. "We’ve been in the trenches. I came to trust him, and that’s what I wanted — someone I felt could handle and negotiate these really difficult moral questions."

The next step was interviewing showrunners, and after landing on Oscar-nominated screenwriter Dan Futterman (Capote, Foxcatcher) after their first meeting, they went out and pitched the project.

"Hulu gave us the kind of commitment that we were looking for," Wright explains of the straight-to-series order. "Not just financial, but when you are dealing with intelligence agencies, you have some rather formidable challenges."

The Looming Tower is a dramatic retelling of the events leading up to 9/11 and is based on Wright's meticulously written book — so much so that when the series opens in 1998, the timeline matches up to nearly 300 pages into Wright's story.

For Wright, capturing the right tone was key. "Because it’s such a tragedy, you don’t want to seem like you are capitalizing in the grief that so many people suffered because of it," he says. "It’s my hope that the viewers will come to trust and see this as an honest rendition, as best as we can do, of the events that led to 9/11, the mistakes we made and the changes that occurred in our country because of it."

The Looming Tower tracks the rising threat of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda while shining a light on the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA that inadvertently set the path for the tragic Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. While Wright, for both the book and the series, had much cooperation from the FBI, the CIA was another story.

"I’ve been told the CIA uses The Looming Tower in their training, but officially they aren’t happy about it because it points out that 9/11 could have been stopped," Wright explains of pertinent intel the CIA withheld from the FBI. "I’ve had a lot of good cooperation from former CIA agents. The agency itself is opposed to the series and they have not been cooperative at all, although we’ve offered. They’ve missed the opportunity to have us come visit and talk to some of their officials and have them respond to some of the questions that the series poses about the conflict between the FBI and the CIA: what could have been done to stop the attack, especially when the CIA had knowledge of al-Qaeda being in America more than a year and a half before the attacks and failed to tell the FBI."

The series will explore the counterterrorism units through the FBI's I-49 squad, led by John O'Neill (played by Jeff Daniels) and the CIA's Alec Station, led by a composite character played by Peter Sarsgaard. Early in the story, O'Neill recruits Muslim-American Soufan (Rahim) to be his protege, utilizing his skills as one of only eight Arabic speaking agents in the entire bureau at the time.

Wright came upon O'Neill's story when reading 9/11 obituaries days after the attack on the World Trade Center. After 25 years in the bureau, O'Neill left the FBI to become chief of security for the Towers one month before the attack; his body was found 10 days later.

"When I read that obituary I thought, 'How ironic, he didn’t get bin Laden; bin Laden got him,' " recalls Wright. "But the more I learned about John O’Neill, I realized it wasn’t irony — he told his friends that radical Islamist terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center before, in 1993, and he said they would come back to finish the job. He instinctively placed himself at Ground Zero."

He added, "I realized that instead of being the victim of this, he was this heroic figure who went to the place he knew al-Qaeda would strike."

Daniels embodies the role of O'Neill, who was as polarizing a figure as he was steadfast in his dogged pursuit against global terror. "This is a character who is driven, a person who elicits only two reactions: love and hate," Wright says. While writing the book, he also heard about an FBI agent who had been born in Lebanon and who "was this incredibly vital force" — this was Soufan (also a hands-on producer on the series).

While Wright says it's not necessary to read his book before watching the series, he does think that the more educated the audience is about what happened, the more they’ll appreciate what the show has accomplished. After filming in three countries — the U.S., Morocco and South Africa — Wright remains astounded by the vast and ambitious work that went into creating a new kind of document for Americans to revisit 9/11, and for the younger generations to learn about it.

"So much time passed that young people now don’t know what that event was. People who are graduating from college now were too young to remember, and the next class wouldn’t have even been born by 9/11," says Wright. "So quickly these things recede into history, and I realized they didn’t have a narrative about how we became the country we are now because of what happened on 9/11, and because of what happened after. They don’t realize the kinds of freedoms we had that we took for granted or our place in the world — we were such a confident country back then, and they don’t understand how we got where we are."

While a main objective of the series is to show that story to all people, especially the young, the journalist also hopes the questions raised will result in some long-awaited answers.

"I’ve asked them before, and so has the 9/11 Commission, and the response is, 'We were too busy fighting terror. So many threats were coming in, there was miscommunication,' " he says. "I’m sure all those things were true, but I think it’s time for the CIA to respond to some of these questions."

The Looming Tower debuts its first three episodes on Hulu Feb. 28; subsequent episodes will bow weekly.